I'm writing this column during the annual marketing world decampment to CES. More headlines, as usual, about whether new technology X or Y will change the game for marketers; more nascent platforms trying their hardest to get a slice of the easy money they see brands offering. Every year, it reminds me of the fundamental misunderstanding we have of what technology actually means.
We have a habit of equating technology with the shiny new thing – the new platform, site or piece of code that becomes the talk of the town. A few years ago, it was the rise of social; this year, it seems to be the promise of VR. Undoubtedly, all relatively important things that might unlock new ways to tell stories and/or reach people. But this shiny stuff is like a fireworks display – it glows brightly enough for a short burst to turn heads but then tends to fade away into the night.
What's far more important is the etymological meaning of technology. As Ben Horowitz, one of the founding partners of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, points out, the word technology means 'a better way of doing things'. Perhaps if we were more obsessed by this – the stuff that often goes on unseen under the surface – than the beauty pageant of gadgets we fall in and out of love with every year, we might be able to create an industry and produce ideas that move at least as fast as the speed of culture.
This ability to generate momentum through real innovation is critical to the health of marketing and the vitality of the ideas we put out into the world. As Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of GE, said: "If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near."
So what should technology really mean to us? Well, if at its heart our business is about creating more valuable relationships between companies and people (and, by extension, between companies and their marketing partners), I would, perhaps, look first at three kinds of technology.
First, perhaps we could start by finding better ways to build magnetism between brands and people – a relationship that is both irresistibly attractive and hard to leave.
Rather than simply looking for new ways to do what we've always done before by finding new ways to spam people, perhaps we could look for new ways to build better relationships.
I'm firmly of the opinion that rather than spending all our time and skill in adding opaque layers to brands and, instead, spending a fraction of that time in the service of baking the brand more directly and coherently into the product experience, then perhaps we will build a more honest, long-lasting and effective relationship with people.
Second, I would be looking at the developments going on in the fields adjacent to marketing (evolutionary economics, social psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics, to name a few) to understand how people really make decisions and how ideas really spread. If we can understand these fundamentals better and challenge some of the past orthodoxies, then perhaps we can develop fresh ways of building a bridge between people and commerce that are more valuable to both parties.
Third, I would be looking at our own industry and trying new and better ways of doing what we do. I'd be thinking about bringing different people together in different ways in order to get to different ideas. (And I'd be questioning which of these people should be from the 'traditional' talent we have in agencies versus friendly talent from outside our usual worlds.) I'd be exploring working with clients in different ways and different tempos. And I'd be looking to find a better, fairer way of being compensated for the economic value we can create when we are on our game.
All of this might not sound like technology as we know it. But I'm pretty sure this truer and more fundamental type of technology will be far more valuable than anything we choose to hang our hats on at CES, this year or next.